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Amazing numbers in context

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 10, 2010

In this week's Monday Morning Quarterback, Peter King included a discussion of the Hall of Fame selections this weekend, and included a section on Floyd Little. King notes that he did not vote for Little, but at least 36 of the remaining 43 selectors did. Here is the part that caught my attention:

There's no doubt in my mind that the exhaustive work of Denver Post writer Jeff Legwold either got Little in or was a major factor in his election. The way the system works is that each candidate has his case for election presented by a member of the media from where he played. Then there's free-flowing debate about the candidate. Little's speaker was Legwold. Our bylaws prevent me from discussing freely what Legwold said in the meeting, but with permission of Hall of Fame VP Joe Horrigan, I can say that one factor in Legwold's argument was that Legwold personally viewed about 1,200 of 1,641 carries in Little's nine NFL seasons.

Though I can't tell you what Legwold said in his presentation, I can tell you I discussed this with him after the presentation and Legwold said he kept records of each carry and where Little was first contacted by a defender behind a subpar Denver offensive line. Legwold said about 30 percent of the time Little was first hit behind the line. That's an amazing number. "I saw a runner who had to struggle to get to the line of scrimmage often,'' Legwold said afterward. "He had no time to be a patient runner, because he was in a bad offense with no other options.''

It's that amazing number comment that got me. I'm guessing that the committee didn't consider how frequently all running backs are first contacted behind the line of scrimmage, because that number doesn't seem particularly amazing to me. How good is a .350 on base percentage? You have to have some context about what the average is. Is making 50% of field goals from over 50 yards good or bad? Well, we need to know what others have done.

Getting hit behind the line of scrimmage 30% of the time may have wowed the room, but if it did, it's because the voters did not understand and put into context how many runs are failures where the back is first contacted behind the line. I don't have play by play data from Little's era and I also haven't viewed over 1,000 carries of any player from that era. I can try to do a quick estimate of how amazing that number is. Before the 2007 season, Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders wrote an article breaking down the percentage of rushing plays that result in certain gains. He used the 2005, 2006, and 2000 seasons. For those three seasons, 9.1% of all runs lost yardage, 8.8% gained no yards, and 12.1% gained exactly one yard. That adds up to 30.0% of all running plays either losing yards or gaining one yard or less.

Now, that number is not a direct comparison. It just allows us to put the "first contacted behind the line 30% of the time" in some context. First, not all of those rushing plays measured in 2000, 2005 and 2006 were by running backs, though a sizeable majority were. Also, not every one yard gain resulted from first contact occuring behind the line of scrimmage, though a majority of them were. On the other hand, sometimes a running back breaks a tackle or brushes off a player "contacting" him and gains more than a yard. The average carry in the three recent seasons was about 0.1 yard higher than it was during Little's prime. Throw that all together, and my guesstimate is that Little was hit behind the line a little more frequently than the average running back. I would put an estimate of between 25% and 30% for the average running back during Little's time. Certainly, it wasn't something like 10% or 15% for all others.

These numbers were presented in a vacuum to make Little's Hall of Fame case that despite his numbers, he deserved in because he played with such bad teammates. As an aside, this makes me extremely interested to see Little's induction speech. What's he going to do? Get up and thank his offensive linemen--for being perceived as being crappy enough to get him in?

So how bad were his linemen? Well, Doug and Chase have both taken a crack at that topic, and were certainly not looking to make a case for a specific player. In Doug's first pass at looking at the top 100 career rushers, Little ranked 89th in terms of playing with pro bowlers the year they made the pro bowl. He jumped to 31st when looking at how many eventual or past pro bowlers he played with, though his pro bowlers weren't of the Munoz variety. He dropped back to 85th when looking at the total pro bowls for his linemen. Remember, though, that these are below average rankings when compared to other top running backs, not compared to all running backs.

In part two, Doug then used Approximate Value and weighted it by linemen age versus peak. Little came in at #88 on that list. A year later, Chase improved on Doug's information by not only weighting it by the linemen age, but by also weighing it by the running back's actual production peak. Little came in at #85 on Chase's list. So we can say that Floyd Little played with below average linemen relative to other top rushers. Of course, so did Walter Payton, who checks in at #91, or Gale Sayers at #88. I'm guessing that Walter Payton's presenter didn't get up and talk about how bad his linemen were throughout much of his prime. The way Little's case was presented, you would think he played with the worst line of all-time, or even the worst among the top 100. He's about as close to average as he is to the very bottom, where James Wilder really did play with linemen who were a lot less accomplished than Little's. I'm going to start breaking down Wilder's career carries. I suspect he was hit behind the line an amazing number of times, and his 3.8 career rushing average should be a lock for the Hall.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 at 8:02 am and is filed under History, Rant. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.